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Hi, I'm Daniela. Welcome to my personal lair on the Internet. This is where I write about storytelling, activism, technology and pop culture. Sometimes I post videos. I update my lair when the mood strikes me. Follow me on Twitter for daily updates (@dcap).

Some ways to make NYC’s Open Data initiative more people-friendly

Unless you work in government, are a developer or have a tech-focused job, you’ve probably never heard of New York City’s Department of Information Technology and Communications (DOITT) or their cool Open Data initiative that launched earlier this month. That speaks to a broader problem of data sets not being accessible to everyone, which is a shift I see happening over the next few years as more people create their own apps to meet business and pro-social goals.

NYC Open Data website Open Data is essentially an evolving public database of data sets provided by New York City agencies and other city organizations which are available for public use. That may sound incredibly boring but it’s actually extremely exciting and sexy (if you think open government is sexy — which it is). Participants in NYC’s BigApps challenge can harness these data sets to create apps that improve government accessibility, transparency and accountability.

One of last year’s winners was Big Apple Ed, an online guide to New York City schools. The site makes use of data provided by The City of New York and the New York State and New York City Departments of Education.

Why You Don’t Care (Yet)

If you’re not a techie (or a parent), you are probably wondering where the sexy part of this blog post is. I promise, it’s coming. Keep in mind that data can be used in a myriad of ways. If you’re an artist, student, teacher, non-profit organization, marketer, media strategist or small business owner, Open Data is a tool for your arsenal too.

During her recent Strata Conference talk shared by O’Reilly Media, NYC Chief Digital Officer Rachel Sterne discussed how open government could transform New York. Sterne also noted that all of their work opening the data “doesn’t matter if we’re not evangelizing it and making sure people are using it.”

In the spirit of evangelizing shared public resources, I’m sharing my opinion that the reason you don’t know about the awesome potential of the Open Data site is that it was designed for developers, not the average person. This makes sense — NYC government wants to partner with techie people to use their data to improve civic engagement and transparency. That’s awesome. What’s not as awesome is that in this iteration of the site they didn’t empower everyday people to use the data or make the data very people-friendly, which means the only people evangelizing this resource right now are government officials, developers and data practitioners — but it doesn’t have to be this way.

Steven Romalewski, who directs the CUNY Mapping Service at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY), wrote an insightful review of Open Data’s features after it launched . In addition to comparing it to its previous iteration as NYC Data Mine, Romalewski points out that for the average user — someone at a Community Board, or a local media outlet, or a City Council member’s office — the city’s implementation of NYC Open Data seems against them. He argues that the real issue here is that the city’s open data efforts are being driven more by the desire to use data access as a way to leverage economic development, and less about true government transparency.

I have to play devil’s advocate here and say that although I agree that the city is using data primarily to leverage economic development, I don’t think the intention is growth at the expense of government transparency. I think it’s just a matter of not seeing the potential of economic growth and innovation through partnering with more than than just developers and infrastructure-focused partner companies.

How To Make You Care

But first, the most important ways that NYC Open Data can be more people-friendly overall: improving engagement by connecting with people in familiar ways that demystify the data and the ways you can access it, such as from cloud application management platforms like Engine Yard that host & support data-driven app development.

1) Create Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and YouTube channels that highlight data sets, how people are using the data and share resources

It’s unrealistic to expect non-developers to visit the site and understand what it means at first glance. Social channels and the content shared through those mediums will make the data more relatable to everyday people, particularly if what is being shared includes case studies, data visualizations, employment opportunities, contests, human-interest stories and other fun opportunities to play with the data.

2) Create and maintain an official blog that offer case studies, best practices, user guides, human-interest stories and solicits feedback on initiatives

The content from this blog can be seeded on the social channels and serve as an incubator for ongoing discussions on different data set use cases.

3) Implement an email subscription/SMS+text alert system that allows you to sign up based on different interests (specific data categories, overall updates, events, etc.)

Only developers will be checking the site on a regular basis. Let people subscribe to what they want and empower them to receive the information in all the ways that work for them.

4) Implement community features

NYC Open Data is a wealth of information for different communities but it’s completely lacking a community component of its own. At the very least, DOITT should add a message board for developers to share ideas and resources and a leader board highlighting the most-accessed data sets. DOITT should also foster community participation by organizing NYC Open Data Meetups and empower community members to lead discussions on different topics.

Now, let’s break down some ways that people who aren’t developers or data scientists COULD use NYC Open Data and site improvements that would make these resources more accessible.


Artists and Arts Organizations


1. Multimedia data-driven installations: For decades artists have explored repetition and data manipulation in their work. Why not create a resource hub on NYC Open Data for artists and art institution that highlights relevant data sets, ongoing projects, and collaborates on exhibitions that utilize NYC public data?

An interesting example would be if the Brooklyn Museum (my favorite art haunt) partnered with the city and local artists to curate an exhibition focusing on 311 data. Visualizations representing the different kinds of calls, complaints and real-time information would be an interesting exploration of community and civic engagement.

2. Grants and scholarships: Philanthropical organizations (if empowered to do so) could use these data sets to determine new funding opportunities based on need, location and intersecting factors. However, they aren’t going to do this if they don’t know how to find the data, what it means, or how to manipulate it to get the information they want.


1. NYC Open Data should create a hub on the site focused on providing resources for artists and arts organizations. This hub could highlight how artists and organizations are using the data, providing recommendations on how it could be used and offer challenges for artists to use public data to enhance city-wide initiatives.

2. NYC Open Data should create an arts-specific Facebook page (“NYC Open Data for Artists”) that spotlights ongoing projects, opportunities and relevant data sets.

3. NYC Open Data should have a developers hub intended for youth ages 21 and younger. More and more young people are harnessing the power of the cloud, data and mobile web development to change the world.


Non-Profits and Grassroots Organizations


1. Grant writing/applications: It would be very beneficial for non-profits to be able to see data from funding opportunities. They could use the data to determine which grants to focus on, the implications of city budget allotments (how money is being spent) and more.

2. Focused campaigns: Grassroots movements like Occupy could use data set information to empower their decisions and to share information and directives with affiliated groups across the nation.


1. NYC Open Data should create a hub on the site for non-profits and civic engagement (activism). This hub could highlight how non-profits are using the data, providing recommendations on how it could be used and offer opportunities for non-profits to use public data to enhance city-wide initiatives.

This sounds like a repeat of my first suggestion for artists and essentially it is — only tailored to non-profits. And just as I stated for artist resources, NYC Open Data should create a non-profit specific Facebook page (“NYC Open Data for Non-Profits”) that spotlights ongoing projects, opportunities and relevant data sets.

2. Specific to Occupy, it would be very beneficial for volunteers to be trained on how to read data to inform their decisions. Leaders could use NYC Open Data as a teaching tool by pulling data to reveal information about arrests, previous protest-related damage and lawsuits, etc.

The examples I listed above are only the tip of the iceberg. Public access to city data and empowering organizations, journalists and everyday people to use the data could kick off a new renaissance of innovation for NYC that could be modeled in other cities. We won’t know until we give people the tools to manifest their dreams.


Brass Tacks: What It Will Take To Make This Happen

NYC Open Data would be much more accessible (make more sense to regular people) and utilized if it took the 21+ data set categories they have already defined (Environmental, Women’s Issues, Media, etc.) on the site and turned them into individual hubs with relevant and consistently updated resources, making sure to include social platforms for evangelizing and community-building.

In order to achieve this goal, the city would need to hire a Supervising Producer to oversee the hiring and management of digital producers with a journalism and activism background for each topic-focused hub. Each digital producer for each hub within the site would work with different city agencies and with data experts and data viz talents to make their hub an accessible resource.

This step would be aligned with NYC’s Digital Roadmap goals and transform NYC Open Data from a helpful but obscure developer resource into a platform for true civic engagement and community around many different issues.


  • Steven Romalewski

    Good post.  Thanks for highlighting my critique.  Glad to see a dialogue developing on this important issue.

    I definitely agree the city needs to be more “people-friendly” with its open data efforts.  I think it’s very important for the agencies to engage directly with the broader community of people, groups, app developers, etc who are eager to use agency data. Or at least be aware of who’s interested in the data and why. 

    But here I think it’s bad if DoITT (or anyone else) is the intermediary.   Maybe a “supervising producer” as you suggest, could help.  But I think the best approach is if someone in the Dept of Finance, for example, knows how a Community Board will be using that agency’s property valuation data to analyze land use decisions – and perhaps even to advise the data users on which components of the data are most reliable/suited to that purpose and which are not. That’s how I’ve learned all the ins and outs of city data. But it’s been informal and even secretive (helpful agency staff not wanting to be seen “fraternizing with the enemy”). That needs to be out in the open and encouraged. And it needs to happen with each individual agency, since they know their data the best.  That way agencies will hopefully realize why it’s good to open up their data holdings, and users will have a better sense of best practices regarding the data.   However, from the perspective of setting the stage, the Mayor is key.  If he (or she) encourages agencies to work with NGOs to repurpose city data, then it’s so much more likely to actually happen in a meaningful way.   The current mayor has done that to some extent with app developers, but what about other communities of data users.   I think that approach facilitates a partnership between the city and other groups.   App developers feel like they have a partnership.   But I don’t know that this sense goes beyond the tech world (as your post indicates).

    I guess the proof will be in the pudding.  I’m skeptical that the city will be aggressive in this regard, like they’ve done with the tech community (which supports my concern that this is all about economic development and not really about open government).  But I’ll gladly stand corrected if the city actually does a better job!

    Part of my skepticism also stems from watching and participating in these debates for the last 20 years.  Even this latest round of ostensible openness on the part of the city hasn’t been an overnight development.  They’ve had several years now to “get it right” with an open data portal (starting with the first BigApps competition in 2009 and even going back to City Council debates in 2005 and 2006 over requiring 311 data to be posted online).  Lots of people have weighed in; the city can look back on decades of open data policies and practices to see what works and what doesn’t; and they’ve seen other cities do a better job (such as Chicago).  If the city truly wanted to be open with its extensive data holdings, I think we would’ve seen that already.  Hopefully this will change soon; we’ll see.

  • Rachel Sterne

    Daniela, thank you for your insightful, thoughtful suggestions – this is incredibly valuable. Some of these concepts we are already pursuing, others are brilliant, fresh ideas. I hope we can include you and others passionate about the potential of public data in our next steps – community involvement will be key to the success of these powerful resources.

  • Daniela Capistrano

    Hi Steven,

    Thanks for your original post that helped me to understand the bigger picture, and thank you for your comment here! I know you’re feeling skeptical and for good reason, but I think the fact that NYC’s Chief Digital Officer took the time to comment on THIS post within hours of it going live indicates that there is at least one 😉 influential person in government interested in addressing the issues you have brought up. I think that the more that everyday people advocate for change and reach out to like-minded individuals to build consensus with government officials, the faster change will come. You see the problems from a unique perspective which means you have a lot to offer. What’s important is that progress is happening — it’s just not happening as fast as we both would like. But if Rachel is willing to facilitate a public meeting/brainstorm for both data practitioners, the DOITT team, professionals like you, geeks like me and others who would benefit from more transparency,  I think we could make a difference. I’m going to follow up with Rachel about that. Cheers, Daniela

  • Daniela Capistrano

    Hi Rachel,

    Thank you so much for taking the time to ready my post and consider my ideas. You are doing a great job kicking NYC in the butt to work more effectively for the people and bringing to light many factors that in the past wouldn’t even register on my radar. I hope you will consider facilitating a DOITT-led public forum for people like me, data practitioners, students, non-profit folks and other relevant parties to discuss the coming improvements to the Open Data site and work with DOITT to moderate suggests and questions from the public on the other missing pieces. I think that if you live-streamed it and invited some Occupy folks to bring their questions and suggestions, we could speed up the process of creating a valuable resource. It’s already very valuable — people just need to know about it and use it! Let me know how I can help.



  • Frank Hebbert

    Great stuff. I’d add another “brass tack” — those of us outside city government can help to build capacity and demand for the kinds of info that the city is sharing. Opening up data is just a means to an end – it’s up to us to show what empowering and engaging ends those can be. 

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